The parable of the Dishonest Steward (Lk 16:1-8a) is known for being the most difficult parable in the gospels. How does one make sense of a master who commends dishonest behavior? Luke implies the master is a cipher for God who forgives dishonesty beyond all human expectation, and many critics interpret similarly. But this ignores the glaring problem: God is being depicted as commending dishonesty (v. 8a), not forgiving it.
In the original parable (minus Luke’s heavy-handed editorial in 16:8b-13), the master isn’t a cipher for God. He’s exactly as portrayed. The key to understanding his behavior is that, in the culture of honor and shame, the perception of a subordinate reflects directly on a superior. So when the steward is suddenly confronted by hostile charges — that he has been “squandering his master’s money” — it is the master who’s put on the spot. As David Landry and Ben May explain:
“It is not the steward who is on trial, but the master, and the court is the court of the opinion of the public and his peers. To save face and recover a measure of his honor, the master resolves immediately to dismiss the steward. Thereby he acquits himself of the charge of the inability to control his inferiors and recovers some of the loss of face.” (“Honor Restored”, p 4)
But is the steward actually guilty as charged? Landry and May think so: that he was irresponsible and misappropriated funds. But it could also be that he was taking too much “honest graft” for himself, so that peasants suffered and retaliated by spreading false rumors about him. That’s what William Herzog thinks.
If the latter — and I prefer this, since it gives the story a more suggestive thrust — then the slander needs to be seen in terms of what James Scott calls the “weapons of the weak”: everyday forms of peasant resistance like “foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, and sabotage” (Weapons of the Weak, p 29; followed by Herzog in Parables as Subversive Speech, p 252). In agrarian societies such covert tactics are used by the powerless in the face of forced labor, high taxes, rents, loans, and interest. Weapons of the weak can be very effective, especially for not subjecting people to the dangers of open revolt. In this parable, the off-stage peasants use malicious slander or gossip to put the steward on the defensive, throw him off balance, and cause his master to banish him.
But after being banished the steward turns to his own counter-tactics. Knowing he is under attack, he reduces the debtors’ contracts, not removing his own “honest graft” (that was always taken off the record anyway), but cutting directly into the master’s profit. What does he hope to gain by this? Revenge? Not at all. The question is not what he hopes to gain by cheating the master, but what he hopes to gain by being generous to the peasants. Landry/May again:
“When the steward decides to forgive a portion of the amount owed by his master’s debtors, he is not trying to ‘get even’ or to defraud his master to win favor for himself; he is trying desperately to get out of trouble any way that he can. While this seems at odds with appearances, and certainly with the standard scholarly interpretations of the parable, it squares with what we know about human behavior. The first impulse for many people when they discover that they are in deep trouble is to try to make up for the misdeed and thereby get themselves out of trouble.” (p 9)
The steward saves his hide by making the debtors a fortune. Yes, the master has lost profit as a result. But if he insists on banishing the steward, it will blacken his reputation among the people who now favor the steward (and thus him) for lowering the bills. It’s definitely in the master’s best interest to keep the steward, since because of him he will now be hailed as a charitable benefactor. Honor is the greatest form of wealth in this culture.
So the steward really hasn’t cheated his master. He has simply put new cards in the master’s hand. The master commends him for acting shrewdly (phronimos; not “dishonestly”), not only because his hands are tied, but because he truly appreciates the steward’s tactical strategy. The master has taken a short-term loss but will realize a long-term gain, on account of his new reputation as a benefactor. In the meanwhile, says Herzog,
“Out of this battle comes a temporary respite for the peasants, a glimpse of time when debts would be lowered, and a place where rejoicing could be heard. This may not be a parable about the reign of God, but it suggests how weapons of the weak can produce results in a world dominated by the strong.” (p 258)
Herzog, William: Parables as Subversive Speech, Westminster/John Knox, 1994.
Landry, David & May, Ben: “Honor Restored: New Light on the Parable of the Prudent Steward”.
Scott, James: Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, Yale University, 1985.
The complete series